China Called On as Emergency Lender as Italy Faces Crisis

Italy's Silvio Berlusconi and Giulio Tremonti
Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's prime minister, left, with Giulio Tremonti, Italy's finance minister. Photographer: Alessandra Benedetti/Bloomberg

China’s status as the fastest-growing major economy and holder of the largest foreign-exchange reserves lured another bailout candidate as Italy struggles to avoid a collapse in investor confidence.

Italian officials held talks in the past few weeks with Chinese counterparts about potential investments in the country, an Italian government official said yesterday, adding that bonds weren’t the focus. Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti met with Chinese officials in Rome earlier this month, his spokesman Filippo Pepe said by phone today.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu, asked about buying Italian assets, said Europe is one of her nation’s main investment destinations, without specifically mentioning Italy.

Italy joins Spain, Greece, Portugal and investment bank Morgan Stanley among distressed borrowers that turned to China since the 2007 collapse in U.S. mortgage securities set off a crisis that widened to engulf euro-region sovereign debtors. Stocks rose on the potential Chinese investment in Italy even as previous commitments failed to have a lasting impact.

“It’s a clear pattern of China’s intention to help stabilize the euro area,” said Nicholas Zhu, head of macro-commodity research for Asia at Australia & New Zealand Banking Group in Shanghai and a former World Bank economist. “The benefit to China is that it will help in the perception of host countries if China is viewed as a responsible stakeholder in the global community.”

Bond Auction

Italy today sold 3.9 billion euros of a new benchmark five-year bond at an average yield of 5.6 percent, compared with 4.93 percent the last time securities of a similar maturity were sold on July 14. Demand was 1.28 times the amount on offer, compared with 1.93 times at the previous sale.

The yield on Italy’s 10-year bond rose to 5.73 percent after the auction, pushing the spread with the equivalent German securities up 17 basis points to 400 basis points. The MSCI Asia Pacific index of stocks advanced 0.3 percent after the Standard & Poor’s 500 index gained 0.7 percent overnight.

Chinese Image

Brazilian Finance Minister Guido Mantega said today that he would meet with finance officials from Russia, India, China and South Africa at the International Monetary Fund meetings in Washington next week to discuss ways the so-called BRIC nations can help Europe overcome its debt crisis.

His comments to reporters came after Sao Paulo-based Valor Economico newspaper said that BRIC governments are considering using part of their international reserves to increase purchases of German or U.K.-issued debt.

For China, any purchases of European debt may allow the world’s largest exporter to be seen as helpful as it rebuffs calls to allow its exchange rate to appreciate at a faster pace. The world’s second largest economy has amassed record currency reserves of $3.2 trillion by selling yuan to limit gains.

Chinese policy makers are thinking in a “global context” and about the need to prevent a “domino effect” in the European debt crisis, Zhang Yansheng, a researcher affiliated with the nation’s top economic planning agency, said today.

China’s central bank referred questions to the State Administration of Foreign Exchange, which didn’t respond to a request for comment. China Investment Corp., the nation’s sovereign-wealth fund, also didn’t respond.

Italy’s bond-yields rose to a euro-era record last month as the region’s sovereign debt crisis spread from Greece, the first to receive a European Union-led bailout. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s government rushed a 54 billion-euro austerity package to convince the European Central Bank to buy its debt.


Even so, the size of Italy’s debt -- at 1.9 trillion euros more than Spain, Greece, Ireland and Portugal combined -- leaves it vulnerable to any rise in borrowing costs as it refinances maturing securities. The country still needs to sell about 70 billion euros of debt this year to cover its deficit and finance redemptions.

“We have heard this story before with regard to the likes of Spanish and Portuguese bonds, and in the end it was ECB buying and EU bailouts that seemed to have taken place rather than anything with a Chinese influence,” Gary Jenkins, a strategist at Evolution Securities in London, wrote in a research note.

Any Chinese purchases of euro-region debt to date haven’t produced a lasting cut in yield premiums for Greece, Portugal or Spain.

The extra yield investors demand to buy Greek 10-year debt over German bunds is about 23 percentage points, up from 14 percentage points three months ago. The equivalent spread for Portugal over Germany is 9.5 percentage points, up from 7.7 points over that period. Spain’s gap rose to 3.6 points from 2.5 points.

Too Big

“The issue with Europe is bigger than China alone can help with,” said Ju Wang, a fixed-income strategist at Barclays Capital in Singapore, adding that Italy’s debt load alone is a sum exceeding half the Chinese foreign-exchange reserves. “China probably will continue to help to shore up the euro, but its involvement in direct purchases of troubled Europe debt is unlikely to be too aggressive.”

If Italy “falls” it may drag down Europe, the world and China’s economy, said Zhang, a researcher at the Institute of Foreign Economic Research affiliated to the National Development and Reform Commission.

Japanese Finance Minister Jun Azumi said today that European policy makers should decide themselves whether they need fiscal assistance from Japan. U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner will travel to Poland on Sept. 16 to participate in a meeting of European government finance officials trying to contain the region’s debt crisis.

‘Helping Hand’

Premier Wen Jiabao said in June that China can offer “a helping hand” to Europe by buying a limited volume of sovereign bonds. The Asian nation pledged that month to buy Hungarian government bonds and agreed to extend a 1 billion euro loan for the financing of development projects in the European country that needed an International Monetary Fund-led bailout in 2008.

Spain’s prime minister secured a Chinese pledge to invest in his nation’s faltering savings banks and in government debt on an April visit to Beijing.

In October, Wen said China will buy Greek bonds to support Greece’s shipping industry, while Chinese state-run banks agreed to $267.8 million in loans to three Greek shippers. President Hu Jintao visited Portugal in November and said China is “available to support, through concrete measures, Portuguese efforts to face the impacts caused by the international financial crisis.”

Investors may get a chance to hear Jiabao speak on Europe’s crisis tomorrow, when he delivers remarks at the World Economic Forum in Dalian, China.

“I don’t expect him to say that China will underwrite the euro zone, hopes for which have episodically boosted prices of risk assets this year,” said Tim Condon, head of Asia research at ING Groep NV in Singapore. “I expect he will utter comforting generalities about underlying economic strength and ability to resolve the debt problems.”


Any Chinese purchases of euro-denominated debt may help it diversify its reserves away from dollars. The biggest foreign owner of U.S. government debt has doubled its holdings of Treasuries in the three years through June to about $1.17 trillion.

China is playing a “white knight” role in assisting Europe and buying itself goodwill that will enable it to purchase more sensitive European assets such as technology companies, according to Stamford, Connecticut-based Faros Trading in a June report. The European Union still has an arms embargo on China, imposed after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.

Some of China’s investments have returned losses. China Investment Corp. paid $3 billion for a 9.4 percent stake in private equity firm Blackstone in 2007 at a 4.5 percent discount to its initial public offering price of $31. The stock traded at $12.31 yesterday, which translates to a loss of more than $1.7 billion loss for China, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

CIC, as the wealth fund is known, widened its investment horizon to 10 years from five years, the company said in July.

“They are trying to be helpful by diversifying a little within the euro zone community,” Michael Spence, a Nobel laureate in economics, said while attending a conference in Beijing today. “With relatively high yields, if there is a credible plan in Italy -- Italy has very low private debt, its public debt is relatively stable if they adopt sensible policies -- so could be quite a good investment as well.”

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